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Accent on `eccentric'

`Big Love's' Grace Zabriskie has always been a person inclined to take the road, and roles, less traveled.

May 21, 2006|Lynn Smith | Times Staff Writer

GRACE ZABRISKIE was describing her part in a just-completed film, the latest of at least 100 roles in her late-blooming career. "Believe it or not," she said with the barest twitch of an eyebrow -- "it's a really weird woman."

At 65, the ginger-haired actor-artist-poet has probably played more weird women than anyone else in Hollywood. Currently, she plays Lois, the proud, rebellious, possibly homicidal mother of polygamist Bill Henderson in HBO's "Big Love," which ends its first season June 4.

Zabriskie wanted the part largely because the humor -- and there is quite a bit of it -- wasn't written into the dialogue. "Let me get the humor out of how serious I am about this," she said. "I love the way people laugh out loud and are surprised at their own laughter."

And "Big Love" wanted her, said the show's creators, Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer. "She nailed the part, in intelligence, in emotion and in idiosyncrasy," Olsen said. "What Grace brings is this tremendous tragedy beneath the surface of her comic portrayal," Scheffer added.

For the show's casting directors, Junie Lowry-Johnson and Libby Goldstein, Zabriskie knows how to take a character far beyond "weird." "It's not like watching a side show. She acts from the inside out," Johnson said. "There are wonderfully skilled actors who don't do it."

In the as-yet-unreleased David Lynch film "Inland Empire," she'll play a woman with a "kind of Gypsy, psychic thing going on," Zabriskie said. Lynch previously tapped her to play Laura Palmer's weepy mother in "Twin Peaks" and a crazed killer in "Wild at Heart."

She was the mother of George Costanza's fiancee/victim Susan on "Seinfeld," a snake-charming seductress on "Hill Street Blues" and a victim herself in "The Grudge." Next, she'll play Mandy Moore's grandmother in a Robin Williams film. "She's basically a grandma," Zabriskie said. "But obviously, the director wants something else going on."

She took a drag from a cigarette, blowing smoke out the open kitchen window of her Silver Lake home, a dark, complex feast of books, sculpture and twittering canaries. The canaries, she said, belong to her 15-year companion, Philip Horowitz. The house includes two workshops, troves of sanders, saws, presses and drills, where Zabriskie makes sculptures and artistic furniture when she isn't shooting movies or shows.

"My idea of a vacation after work is a different kind of work," she said. While some people might write off a person with multiple vocations, Zabriskie said she is committed to the concept of "the passionate amateur." After a wave of gallery shows, she said she just works now at what she needs to do, making pieces for customers or friends. "I do not consider myself a dilettante, and I don't think I spread myself too thin," she said.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Zabriskie grew up with bohemian parents in an exotic locale -- in her case, the French Quarter of New Orleans. An exceptionally quick child, she read Shakespeare at age 3.

She recalled that her father, an actor who owned a cafe frequented by the likes of Truman Capote, Gore Vidal and Tennessee Williams, would wake her up in the wee hours of the mornings to show off for guests who had closed down the cafe. But instead of simply performing to please the adults, she would trick them instead.

"I would entice them into their worst selves," she said. "I would pretend not to read. I knew [the plays] by heart, so I would let my eye go from the page until one of them would say, 'She's not reading! She's memorized them!' Then I'd read anything they put in front of me to prove they were full of ... . Then I would have scored some kind of point in my universe."

Zabriskie said one reason she has maintained a long career in a youth-obsessed business is that she moved to Hollywood as an older actress in her mid-30s -- and that she already had an agent. The agent had seen her in "Norma Rae" and promised that if she moved from Atlanta to Los Angeles, she would find work. "I had the advantage/disadvantage of needing to work," said the thrice-married Zabriskie. "I did pretty much everything that came along."

To directors, her face -- with its wide-set green eyes and asymmetrical mouth -- was unusually evocative and expressive; some called her quintessentially rural, others said she was urban. Some people think of her as someone who makes a living being ugly, others find her an exotic beauty. Recently, she said she's noticed her face is doing an odd thing: "It's falling apart, of course, but in a way that's not uninteresting. I'm grateful for that. It's better to be interesting than boring."

About 15 years ago, she decided against plastic surgery. "I am an actress. That means I must convey states of being, emotions. Why would I cut the muscles that allow me to frown?

"I figure that people do get old, and until everyone in the world has their face lifted, somebody's got to play the people who don't. I'm here."

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